Of course it goes without saying that you don’t watch Glee, you couldn’t care less about Glee, you wouldn’t touch Glee with a stick. It’s a teen musical on TV, for Christ’s sake, there could hardly be anything lamer than that. Even gibbering fans of this series acknowledge its lameness by calling themselves Gleeks.
But Glee’s now a cultural phenomenon, and hard to ignore. After one season, its soundtracks are best-sellers and its songs are much downloaded. Its cast got invited to perform at the White House Easter Egg Roll because the Obamas are big fans, and then they went on Oprah. Done deal! Now every known music performer and band in the world wants to have their songs covered on Glee, which has already taken on Kanye West, Katy Perry, the Rolling Stones, Beyonce, Rihanna…and coming up there’s Madonna, Lady Gaga, Coldplay…
This madness is only going to get bigger once the show’s second season starts this Tuesday. If you aren’t Glee-conscious already, pretty soon you’ll be hearing about it whether you want to or not. Here’s a fun fact to help you through it: Glee is a blatant rip-off of the great 1999 movie Election. And for some reason, nobody mentions it.
You remember Election. An annihilating satire of the American experience, Election has never really been equaled for sheer truth-telling about the crushing awfulness of high school, which sets us up for the rotten lives we’re going to live thereafter. Election features a grotesque ensemble of recognizable types. Matthew Broderick gives the performance of a lifetime as the pasty, doughy, dweeby high school teacher, Jim McAllister, who lies to himself about being a committed educator but at the faintest opportunity will sell out every supposed value for sex, revenge, and escape from his crappy job and car and clothes and marriage.
His nemesis is the immortal Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, who’ll never top this), a chillingly horrible high school overachiever driven on by her neurotic mother to scary depths of blank-eyed, can-do ruthlessness. Chris Klein was plucked out of the Omaha high school world where the film is set to play the big clueless jock Paul Metzler, everybody’s pawn. He’s set up by McAllister to run against Tracy Flick in the election for high school class president. Then his cynical lesbian sister Tammy (Jennifer Campbell) throws her hat in the ring to spite Paul after Paul unwittingly steals Tammy’s nasty hypocritical girlfriend. In the end, Tammy alone figures out the idiocy of the system and engineers her own triumphant escape from it. Everybody else is doomed to play out the horrifying scenarios set in stone in high school.
These four characters provide competing voice-over accounts of their cut-throat election battle. Well, Glee steals three of those four main characters, plus the competitive-voice-over device that reveals all of their self-serving rationalizations for rotten deeds. Instead of an election there’s a series of glee club competitions, and the constant attempts to sabotage them by sociopathic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (take-no-prisoners comic actor Jane Lynch).
But Glee makes everyone prettier and sweeter in that way TV generally does, and works to guarantee them all redemption and happy endings. Matthew Morrison, as dedicated high school teacher Will Shuester, drives to work in a rusty car dragging its muffler, similar to the sad little compact driven by Matthew Broderick’s character, but when he gets out he’s tall and handsome and gym-toned and grinning, and boy, can he bust a move, like some kind of freakish latter-day Gene Kelly. He looks like a Broadway musical star because he was one, in Hairspray. He does McAllister-esque deeds, like blackmailing football quarterback Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) into joining glee club by planting pot in his locker and then threatening to have him busted him for drug possession, but this is handled cutely with many bleatings of remorse on the soundtrack. Also like McAllister, Will’s got a pathetically terrible marriage to a mean user, and a small, pinched life, but you can see plainly that there’s no way he’s doomed to continue it.
Another Broadway star (Spring Awakenings), Lea Michelle, plays the Tracy Flick equivalent, the abrasively ambitious Rachel Berry, who signs her name with an affixed gold star because, as she says in her Election-esque voice-over, “Metaphors are important, and this is a metaphor for me, being a star.” (Not bad, line-wise!) There are even shots of Rachel in her absurd preppy clothes, knee socks and so on, striding forward through empty high school hallways, that are direct thefts from Election.
Cory Monteith plays Finn, the naïve big-lug jock, and he looks enough like Chris Klein to be his cousin. They’re both as galumphing as St. Bernard puppies, with dairy-fresh white boy skin and soft, wide-open faces. He too is a perfect sexual dupe of cunning teenage females like his girlfriend, head cheerleader Quinn Fabray (Dianna Argon), who’s both president of the Chastity Club and secretly pregnant with the baby of Finn’s best friend, Puck (Mark Salling). Well, not “secretly” for long.
But instead of the savvy lesbian sister Tammy, there’s Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), a cosmopolitan gay kid who’s forming his plans to “get out of this cowtown.” Tammy arranged her own deliverance by staying in the closet and getting herself “punished” by being transferred to a Catholic girls’ school, where she’ll not only get a decent education but also, presumably, a lesbian cornucopia. But Glee’s Kurt has the more traditional TV-type coming-out, full of suspense and hugs and tears and affirmation.
A lot is made of the Glee location—Lima, Ohio—as a dead-end loser town full of uneducated going-nowhere heartland hicks, and the slim odds of our little band of heroes ever arriving at a better place in life. This worthy premise is directly contradicted by the casting of powerhouse talent in all the major roles, many of them beautiful, all of them super-dynamos. This is a musical tradition, if you’ve ever watched musicals. You know, young Judy Garland playing a supposedly plain little mouse nobody expects much of, except she’s got the lung capacity of Seabiscuit and she could sing anybody off the stage from age ten on, and she could dance, and act, and she practically vibrated with performing energy, and blah blah blah. Supposedly the Glee creators auditioned half the world looking for insane levels of talent, so everybody in this fictional Loserville is a singing-dancing-emoting star.
The cast of the show also makes Lima, Ohio look like the most diverse town in the USA, with everybody fully represented: whites, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Indians, Jews, gays, the wheelchair-bound, the deaf, the whole Family of Man. There are a lot of reflexive jokes made about this in the show. (“You look like the world’s worst Benneton ad.”) They’re necessary, because this doesn’t look like anyplace in Ohio I’ve been, though maybe Ohio has changed recently. I hope so, for Ohio’s sake.
It’s pretty fascinating to watch, the slippery way the show balances out its hopeless contradictions. They borrow the authenticity of Election’s savage satire to ground the revival of the fantasy wish-fulfillment of the traditional musical. Every time it gets too saccharine, they subvert it with a dose of furious black humor. Then when it cuts too close to the bone, they do a big uplifting number like their signature tune, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and everybody hugs, or exchanges warm supportive looks of the kind that are never seen in high school, anywhere in the USA.
It’s impressive, really—makes you think the old Hollywood showbiz craftiness survived, after all.
Of course, it doesn’t sound like it would work. In fact, according to accounts that came out around the time the show premiered on Fox, there was a general consensus that it was going to land with a dull thud. Supposedly the original concept came from screenwriter Ian Brennan, who wanted to see a film made about his experience as a member of show choir; Ryan Murphy, Nip/Tuck writer-producer, had been in show choir himself once and brought in Brad Falchuck to help him rewrite the whole thing for TV. So they claim authenticity, especially in the face of early accusations that the whole thing is just a rip-off of High School Musical.
But it’s not. It’s a musical rip-off of Election. I wonder if anyone bothered to pay off Alexander Payne?
Read more: Alexander Payne, Cory Monteith, dark comedy, election, Glee, Lea Michelle, Matthew Broderick, Matthew Morrison, musical, Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Murphy, satire, tv, Eileen Jones, Entertainment, Fatwah
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